Meditating Your Way to a Better Brain

Thanks to the Dalai Lama, lots of monks have lent Richard Davidson their brains. For almost 20 years Davidson, a neuropsychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a long-time meditator himself, has been curious about how Buddhist meditation of the kind the monks practice might change their brains. He has lugged electronic equipment up into the hills above Dharamsala (the Dalai Lama's home in exile in northern India) to test the brains of yogis, lamas and monks living in primitive huts there, and persuaded other monks to visit his lab.

lose attention to one thing it's hard to notice something that comes hard on its heels, typically within half a second. For instance, Davidson had the volunteers watch a screen where capital letters flashed, one at a time, for one-twentieth of a second. Once or twice in the rapid-fire stream of 15 or so letters, a number snuck in. At the end, the volunteers typed which number or numbers had snuck in.

In general, if a second number creeps in less than half a second after the first, you don't notice it. Your attention has been so consumed by detecting the first number, there's not enough left to detect the second. "The attention momentarily goes off-line," Davidson says. "Your attention gets stuck on the first target, then you miss the second one." But as he and colleagues report online today in the journal PLoS Biology, mental training in the form of Vipassana meditation can change that. The meditators significantly improved their ability to detect the second number amid the barrage of letters, even when it came less than half a second later (the period when paying attention to the first number ordinarily keeps you from noticing the second). In addition, the amount of brain activity associated with seeing the first target fell in the meditators "apparently, mental training allowed them to use fewer neural resources to detect the first number, thus leaving enough to notice the second.

"Their previous practice of meditation is influencing their performance on this task," Davidson says."The conventional view is that attentional resources are limited.This shows that attention capabilities can be enhanced through learning."